Flameseeker Chronicles: Looking forward to Guild Wars 2's feature pack

What a good dog.
The dust has barely settled on the Battle for Lion's Arch: Aftermath release, but ArenaNet is already releasing blog posts to discuss Guild Wars 2's April 15th feature pack. What's a feature pack? Well, it's exactly what it says on the tin: We'll be getting a big chunk of gameplay updates, quality-of-life improvements, and balance tweaks that don't fit into the living world or have story components. I usually refer to this stuff as "stuff," but "feature pack" definitely sounds more classy.

As I write this, we've gotten posts on three of the topics locked up in the official feature pack site's nifty little sidebar doodad: one covering updates to the trait system; another to outline balance changes for runes, sigils and professions; and another to talk about swapping critical damage percentage for a new attribute called Ferocity. I have a lot to say about traits, but I'm also going to spend some time speculating on the next two blog posts in the lineup. There's nothing I love more than making half-baked predictions.

Trait expectations

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the changes to trait lines. The new grandmaster traits are exciting, if only because they're novel -- I try not to get too excited (or disappointed) over descriptions before seeing how things play out in the live game. It's also thrilling to see feedback from the collaborative development initiative becoming reality in the form of trait hunting; a major topic in the discussion on horizontal progression was how little GW2 currently does to tie progression to the game world and give players meaningful rewards for gameplay. This is, I believe, one of the biggest reasons GW2 tends to feel grindy to some players despite ArenaNet's efforts to move away from it: Psychologically, exchanging a universal currency like gold for nearly everything does not provide the same feedback as receiving a reward tailored to specific gameplay activities. Both reward types have their uses, but GW2's RPG aspects are a little on the meta-gamey side.

What concerns me is whether or not it's a good idea to push back trait tier unlocks from levels 11, 40, and 60 to levels 30, 60, and 80. The mid-to-late-range leveling experience does have some pacing issues, but the success of this approach is probably going to depend almost entirely on whether or not professions are balanced appropriately to compensate. Professions like the Mesmer have a reputation for being difficult to level due to a strong dependency on build for effectiveness, and even loading lowbie characters up on attributes may not make up for the loss of build-defining traits unless something changes dramatically.

New hairstyles! Land of 10,000 makeover kits!
The Black Lion, a wish, and the wardrobe

My 2013 wish list for GW2 included a lot of griping about the cosmetic system and its eccentricities. Catering to my personal preferences would result in players being allowed to wear anything they please, in any combination and with the ability to swap freely between the sometimes absurdly different versions of gendered armor, but I'm also waiting for someone to deliver a battle unicorn to my doorstep and that hasn't happened yet either. In the meantime, GW2's transmutation system suffers from a number of far more basic issues that make it a pain to use, and it doesn't compare favorably to some of the cosmetic armor systems found in other games.

A wardrobe for the storage of armor and weapon skins has been high on player request lists for a long time. Structured PvP has something like it, so when ArenaNet announced that sPvP and PvE would be sharing earned skins in the near future, it seemed like a good sign that something might be in the works and nearing completion. By the time this column goes live, ArenaNet may already have announced what it means by "A New Way to Explore the Looks of Guild Wars 2," but if it hasn't, I'm calling it now: We're getting a wardrobe system. If it has been announced, and it's a wardrobe system: I totally called it.

Well, OK, I'll be honest. I don't usually speculate here on hints at upcoming features that have been found in the game files ahead of time -- both for professional reasons and because a lot of it is downright unreliable -- but the March 18th release contained a ton of stuff that sure does look like a wardrobe system. From the bits of information Reddit user that_shaman gleaned -- which, as always, is subject to change and may not be correct or current -- it might work by turning transmutation stones and crystals into charges, which can then be spent on changing your outfit whenever you want. If so, that's about how I expected it would realistically be implemented; the main benefits to players would lie in streamlining the transmutation process, providing better storage options, and (hopefully) removing the need to buy multiple sets of statted gear to have multiple looks on hand.

The only thing which truly worries me about it depends on how ArenaNet chooses to handle the current distinction between transmutation stones and level 80 transmutation crystals. You can collect tons of stones just by playing the game since map completion hands them out like candy, but crystals are harder to come by outside of the gem store. I hope ANet will choose to do away with the need to use a different item for level 80 gear entirely while still generously handing out transmutation stones through gameplay. Armor skins cost a lot of money, and I predict that being able to swap between looks more easily will soften any hit to the stones -- financially speaking, of course.

Time to dye

Many months prior to GW2's launch, ArenaNet released a developer blog about the game's dye system, penned by Kristen Perry. On that fateful day, the studio had no idea that this blog post would come back to haunt it... forever.

Imagine some lightning and thunder crashing dramatically here; I'm leaning hard on Massively's special effects infrastructure, but so far no dice.

At the time the blog post was written, unlocked dyes were meant to be available to every character on an account. Although this was far from the only aspect of the original dye system that didn't make it to launch, it was the one players took to heart. When the weekend beta events rolled around and it turned out that dyes were bound to individual characters, ArenaNet's monetization lead, Crystin Cox, made a forum post to explain the reasoning behind this change; unsurprisingly, very few people took it well. I'll be the first to smack down any eyeroll-worthy conspiracy theories about Cox, but GW2 had made a strong case for account-based progression in other areas, so a specific interest in character-based progression for a system that was originally tied very closely to the gem store did not exactly smell of sweet blue wildflowers, regardless of intent.

To its credit, ArenaNet made massive, largely player-friendly changes to dye unlocks during beta and entirely removed the bits where we would have had pay up or wait a full day to find out that we'd unlocked a vial of Olive Ice. Nevertheless, requests for a return to account-wide dye unlocks still make up a significant portion of forum posts that begin with "ANet pls" and encompass a "but you promised" theme.

According to an interview with Mike O'Brien in which he discusses GW2's Chinese beta, account-based unlocks for dyes may finally be in the works across all versions of the game. I'm going to pull out my crystal ball again and predict that the upcoming feature pack blog post that is currently titled "A Colorful Outlook" might have something to do with it. I haven't got much in the way of mined info to hang the illusion of precognitive ability on this time, so if this turns out to be the case, I just want you to know that I -- and at least 20,000 other fans of GW2 -- totally called it.

In the Chinese GW2 beta, dyes are unlocked for an account through dye identifiers, which are purchased for a small amount of gems. According to the interview, O'Brien says that the difference between how this works for live regions and China would mostly be a matter of phrasing: We have dye packs in our version of the store, while they have identifiers. It's probably important to stress that the gem store would not be the only source of dye unlocks, as dyes can still be made through crafting (and hopefully purchased on the trading post).

I'm ambivalent about this change. ArenaNet probably wants to preserve some sense of cosmetic progression, and keeping dyes as readily available as they are now while making them account-based unlocks would make that difficult. I like the potential for making dye crafting into a source of income for chefs, and I am very much in favor of having everything in the game account-bound rather than character-bound if at all possible. However, ArenaNet might be taking a big gamble on exactly how much players want this feature. It's great that the developers are listening to feedback, especially since quite a few of us have sworn up and down that we'll buy gem store items, accept other restrictions, do all of our chores, and walk and feed our dyes every day as long as we can have them unlocked on every character. The crux of the bet is that we've gotten used to dyes being commonly available and relatively inexpensive (with a few exceptions). Are we willing to accept a compromise?

Provided that this change does get announced, I don't think I need my crystal ball to accurately predict some backlash. If it happens, just remember: I totally called it.

Tiny Taimi towers above norn on her golem, Scruffy
The official site refers to the April 15th release as the "first" feature pack, and I couldn't be happier with the possibility of this becoming a regular thing. If ArenaNet plans to separate living world content from general feature and quality-of-life updates, I think the increased focus will be good for the game. Although I'm dedicated to championing the living world concept, I've really felt the lack of general game updates and improvements over the past year, and I think I'd have been considerably less frustrated with the pace of the story at times if it hadn't felt as if ArenaNet was having trouble getting the balance right.

Many of GW2's major systems haven't seen attention since launch, and some of them badly need it. Things like transmutation and storage languishing in clunksville help foster gem store wariness (if I had a nickel for every time I'd seen someone argue that player-unfriendly mechanics must be how ArenaNet makes money, I'd be ordering sushi tonight) as well as make the game look unpolished. After around a year and a half, veteran players are still having to sheepishly explain to newbies that back items don't actually have their own category on the trading post and need to be searched for by name, and that doesn't reflect well on the game. As much as I love the living world, I think it would have been much more warmly received by a playerbase that hadn't been left tapping its collective feet for so long, and I know that I'll be a lot less concerned about the viability of foregoing traditional expansions if ArenaNet starts regularly devoting updates to the sort of improvements that usually come with them.

Are you looking forward to the feature pack? Any plans to participate in the upcoming Tournament of Legends for the chance at a Legendary weapon? Are you as upset as I am that the miniature Largos from Set 3 costs over two hundred gold on the trading post? Do you want to cry it out with me? It's OK; we're here for each other. I'll see you in the Mists!

Anatoli Ingram suffers from severe altitis, Necromancitosis, and Guild Wars 2 addiction. The only known treatment is writing Massively's biweekly Flameseeker Chronicles column, which is published every Tuesday. His conditions are contagious, so contact him safely at anatoli@massively.com. Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.

This article was originally published on Massively.